subscribe to our mailing list:
Is the war between science and religion over?
By Dr. Norman F. Hall and
Lucia K. B. Hall
Posted January 5, 2004
Published in The Humanist, May/June 1986, pg 26
(This copy, adhering to the wishes of the authors, uses the style and wording
of the original manuscript, rather than as edited by The Humanist, which
substituted "he or she" for almost every personal pronoun.)
The CBS television news report "For Our Times," which covered a two-week
conference on "Faith, Science and the Future" held at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology a few years ago, left the viewer with the feeling that
the long conflict between science and religion is at an end. Hundreds of
scientists and theologians gathered to discuss issues of science and ethics and
proceeded from the assumption that science and religion were two nonconflicting
bodies of knowledge, equally valuable complementary paths leading toward an
ultimate understanding of the world and our place in it. The conflicts of the
past were said to be due to excessive zeal and misunderstanding on both sides.
Peaceful coexistence and even a measure of syncretism are now assumed to be
possible as long as each concedes to the other's authority in their separate
worlds of knowledge: that of matter and facts for science, and that of the
spirit and values for religion.
Let us be blunt. While it may appear open-minded, modest, and comforting to
many, this conciliatory view is nonsense. Science and religion are diametrically
opposed at their deepest philosophical levels. And, because the two worldviews
make claims to the same intellectual territory -- that of the origin of the
universe and humankind's relationship to it -- conflict is inevitable.
It is possible, of course, to define a nonsupernatural "religious" worldview
that is not in conflict with science. But in all of its traditional Western
forms, the supernatural religious worldview makes the assumption that the
universe and its inhabitants have been designed and created -- and in many
cases, are guided -- by "forces" or beings which transcend the material world.
The material world is postulated to reflect a mysterious plan originating in
these forces or beings, a plan which is knowable by humans only to the extent
that it has been revealed to an exclusive few. Criticising or questioning any
part of this plan is strongly discouraged, especially where it touches on
questions of morals or ethics.
Science, on the other hand, assumes that there are no transcendent,
immaterial forces and that all forces which do exist within the universe behave
in an ultimately objective or random fashion. The nature of these forces, and
all other scientific knowledge, is revealed only through human effort in a
dynamic process of inquiry. The universe as a whole is assumed to be neutral to
human concerns and to be open to any and all questions, even those concerning
human ethical relationships. Such a universe does not come to us with easy
answers; we must come to it and be prepared to work hard.
In order to understand how scientific observations are made, let's follow a
hypothetical scientist into her laboratory. Suppose this scientist's task is to
measure the amount of protein in a biological fluid -- a common procedure in
research laboratories, hospitals, and school science classes. The scientist will
proceed by carefully measuring out into test tubes both several known volumes of
the fluid and also several different volumes of a "standard" solution she has
prepared by dissolving a weighed quantity of pure protein. The scientist will
add water to bring all the tubes to the same volume and then add a reagent which
reacts with protein to produce a blue color. After the solutions in all the test
tubes have reacted for a specified period of time, the scientist will measure
the intensity of the blue color with a spectrophotometer. By comparing the color
intensity of the unknown solutions, she will be able to calculate how much
standard protein is needed to produce the same color reaction as the unknown,
and this, the scientist will conclude, is the amount of protein in the unknown
What our hypothetical scientist has done is to perform a controlled
experiment. She must report it honestly and completely, including a description
or a reference to the method. She must also be prepared to say that all
variables which could have affected the reported result, to the best of her
knowledge and belief, have been kept constant (for example, by using a water
bath to maintain a constant temperature) or have been measured (as were the
different volumes of the unknown solution and standard solution) or are random
(measurement errors or perhaps proteinaceous dust motes from the surrounding
air). This is the essence of the scientific method.
Clearly, such a controlled experiment would be impossible if our scientist
were required to entertain the possibility that some factor exists that can
affect the color in the test tubes but which can never be controlled in these
ways -- a factor that cannot be held constant, cannot be measured by any
physical means, and cannot be said to act randomly. But that is exactly what the
religious, supernaturalist worldview does require. Untestable, unmeasureable,
and nonrandom occurrences are commonplace in all supernatural religions and
This fundamental incompatibility between the supernaturalism of traditional
religion and the experimental method of science has been, nevertheless,
remarkably easy to dismiss. The findings of science over the past three
centuries have been eagerly welcomed for their practical value. The method,
however, has been treated with suspicion, even scorn. It has been perceived as
being responsible for revealing the material workings of ever more of the
mysteries of life which used to inspire religious awe. From the point of view of
the religious believer, it has seemed as though the goal of science has been to
push belief in the supernatural to ever more remote redoubts until it might
This is not, and cannot be, the goal of science. Rather, a nonmysterious,
understandable, material universe is the basic assumption behind all of science.
Scientists do not chart their progress with ghost-busting in mind. Naturalism or
material monism is not so much the product of scientific research as it is its
starting point. In order for science to work, scientists must assume that the
universe they are investigatiing is playing fair, that it is not capable of
conscious deceit, that it does not play favorites, that miracles do not happen,
and that there is no arcane or spiritual knowledge open only to a few. Only by
making the assumption of materialist monism will the scientist be able to trust
the universe, to assume that although its workings are blind and random it is
for this very reason that they can be depended upon, and that what is learned in
science can, to some degree, be depended upon to reflect reality.
As evolution is the unifying theory for biology, so naturalism is the
unifying theory for all of science. In his book Chance and Necessity,
biochemist Jacques Monod called this basic assumption "the postulate of
objectivity" since it assumes that the universe as a whole is dispassionate of,
indifferent to, and unswayed by human concerns and beliefs about its nature. Its
inverse -- in which the universe is passionately involved in, partial to, and
swayed by human concerns and beliefs about its nature -- is the basic assumption
that underlies the supernatural, religious worldview. We call it the "postulate
The postulate of a purposefully designed universe, as we have seen, destroys
any meaning we might hope to find in the experimental method of science. But in
so doing, it also insures that it will never be incompatible with any of the
findings of science. This ability of the supernatural view to adjust itself to
any finite set of facts has, ironically, made it seem easy to accept both the
findings of science and the consolations of spiritualism. Scientists, as human
beings, are susceptible to the temptations of these comforts. Some believe that
the world of the supernatural lies just beyond where they are performing their
controlled experiments, although they usually feel that it is even more evident
in fields other than their own. However, we need not reject their results. As
long as they are honest -- reporting not only their conclusions but also their
methods and reasoning -- such nonmaterialist scientists can still contribute to
the progress of science in thier own fields of study.
The issue at stake here is whether or not our worldview is to possess
consistency and integrity. Science has worked so well and has been so successful
that it is difficult, if not impossible, to live in the modern world while
rejecting its findings. But by accepting those findings as a free bounty --
while rejecting the hard assumptions and hard work that made them possible --
the supernaturalist embraces a lie.
It is often claimed that science can say nothing about values and ethics
because it can only tell us what is -- not what ought to be. But once again this
is a case of attempting to divorce the findings from the method of science.
Properly understood, science tells us not only what is but also how we must
behave if we are to understand what is. Science has succeeded as a cooperative
human effort by asserting the belief that the universe can only be understood
through the values of integrity and truth-telling. In the process it has become
a system of values, and it has provided humankind with a language which
transcends cultural boudaries and connects us in a hightly satisfying way to all
the observable universe. It has the potential to be used as the basis for a
workable and profoundly satisfying system of ethics. Indeed, it must be so used
if we are to accept its findings without self-deceit.
A naturalistic system of ethics is not likely to be popular, however, until
science can overcome the currently evident public attitude of ignorance and
hostility. In response to a recent San Diego Union story outlining new
developments in cosmological theory, a reader pointed out that "God is in
control of the universe, and the sooner these so-called scientists realize this,
they will not need to invent hocus-pocus 'dark or unseen matter' as a man-made
explanation instead of acknowledging the true source of all things, the
all-powerful omnipotent, omnipresent God, the creator."
He's right, of course. Accept the supernatural and the hard work of making
and testing theories becomes a pointless enterprise, along with all human-made
explanations and meaning. But if we allow such myths to limit the scope and uses
of science, we will do so to our own peril and shame.
In an article in the October 4, 1985, issue of Science, cosmologist Steven
Weinberg said that even if science manages to trace the materialist explanation
back to the first ten-billionth of a second of the existence of the universe, we
still don't know what started the clock. "It may be that we shall never know,"
he wrote, "just as we may never learn the ultimate laws of nature. But I
wouldn't bet on it."
Thank you, Professor Weinberg. We needed that.